My notes on Agora.This is The Passion of the Christ for agnostics. Which might explain why a big, lavish historical epic from an important director (Alejandro Amenabar) with the sort of heroic central performance (from Rachel Weisz) which usually attracts an Oscar nomination has no US release date.
Alexandria, 391 AD. Hypatia (Weisz), notionally a Pagan but actually a philosopher (ie: scientist) is a respected, coddled and much-loved teacher – and consumed by a study of curves and circles, with regards to the mysterious movements of the Earth, the sun and the planets. Not much is known about the historical woman (there was one of those Melvyn Bragg Radio 4 shows about her a while back), but Amenabar presents her as someone asking the right questions — if not hitting on the answers Kepler or Newton would come up with over a thousand years later. Meanwhile, the city is wracked by religious conflict: as an outpost of the Roman Empire, which has converted to Christianity, it is the site of skirmishes between believers in the old Gods of Egypt and the new, angrier faith which – after years of oppression – is coming to power. When Christians occupy the agora (forecourt of the city’s famous library) to pelt the statues with fruit, Hypatia’s father (Michel Lonsdale) goes along with a suggestion that the scholars drive them back. The pagans underestimate the strength of the new movement, which appeals to slaves and other dispossessed people, and wind up barricaded inside the library. The Emperor decrees the pagans can go free, but must cede the library to the Christians – who smash the idols, burn as many scrolls as they can, and turn over the seat of learning to farm animals. Hypatia’s personal and philosophical life is complex: she is loved by the pragmatic, high-born Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who proposes to her in the intermission of a play and is turned down but gets over it (sort of) and becomes governor of the city after converting to Christianity; she is also worshipped by clever slave Davus (Max Minghella), who understands her work better than her actual pupils but takes part in the Christian book-burning, torn apart by mixed feelings about his mistress, his position as a slave (she frees him) and religion.
After the shift in power, and a consequent drift away from science to religion (here, the notion that the world is flat comes from a dimwit street-sweeper who just doesn’t care otherwise), Davus joins the Parabolani, who come on like a Christian Taliban, and their fiery leader Cyril (Sami Samir) struggles with Orestes and liberal Christian Synesius (Rupert Evans), another of Hypatia’s pupils, for control of the city. Cyril uses a passage from the Bible to demonise Hypatia as a witch, and the Parabolini set out to murder her in a way which effectively guarantees clever women will shut up for the next fifteen hundred years or so – though there’s a speculative bit about why exactly she is killed, and the circumstances by which Davus (a fictional character) is involved and still conflicted about the orders of his church. Frankly, it’s a miracle that a movie can present a rational agonistic as a heroine – rack your brains to come up with an American film which does the same – and make a strong case for her point of view: ‘you can’t question your beliefs’, she tells Synesius, ‘but I must.’ In the escalating clashes between pagans, Jews and Christians, it shows that the victor is the most ruthless: and Amenabar’s depiction of early Christians (horribly credible, though you can expect a backlash from partisan amateur historians) is terrifying, making a chant of ‘hallelujah’ sound like ‘seig heil’, burning books and smashing sculptures (guaranteed to upset modern sensibilities), bullying and stoning anyone who gets in their way. Even humane characters like Orestes and Synesius come across as self-serving as they try to persuade Hypatia to save herself by essentially becoming a slave while the menfolk get on with their divinely-appointed job of running the world. The film does acknowledge a level of irony in its herone’s initially privileged position: Christianity is a religion with an especial appeal to slaves, and Hypatia, though kind, relies on slave assistance in her great work—but the mix of lust and vindictiveness former slaves feel in regards to their mistresses leads to disproportionate punishment of a woman with anything like character and a mind.
It plays a clever game with casting – making the Egyptians pale-skinned Brits and Frenchmen, while the Christians are played by olive-skinned, middle Eastern types – and offers a rich recreation of the city, with occasional calm view from space to show the curvature of the Earth or the movements of the planet proceeding unaffected by the hub-bub below.